Talks Begin Over Tax Case and Legal Bills
By IAN FEIN
A visibly frustrated William W. Graham told the West Tisbury selectmen this week that there is no way to resolve his costly tax case with the town unless the principal assessor and chairman of the board of assessors step aside.
"The real problem here is who is in charge," Mr. Graham said. "Because if these people are in charge, you can't win and I can't win and the town can't win."
The remarks came during a busy week of meetings called by selectmen in the aftermath of a town meeting last month where voters rejected $250,000 in legal bills related to the Graham case and expressed discontent with the town's handling of it.
Selectmen responded this week by trying to take the reins.
"Things have changed," selectman and board chairman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter said. "Clearly the sentiment at town meeting did not support the assessors and why we are where we are today."
Selectmen this week adopted a formal legal policy to provide more town oversight of future litigation, and scheduled another special town meeting for mid-January, when they will again ask voters to pay for the legal expenses. On Tuesday and Thursday they met with officials from the two appraisal companies hired by the assessors in the Graham case, and on Wednesday they met in public session with Mr. Graham to discuss the possibility of reopening negotiations aimed at settling the case.
Town assessors did not attend any of the meetings.
Mr. Graham approached the selectmen to respond to a confidentiality agreement sent to him by the town. According to the proposed agreement, the selectmen would serve as mediators in the discussion but the assessors would maintain sole authority over any possible settlement.
Mr. Graham said such negotiations would be pointless because board of assessors chairman Michael Colaneri has no interest in settling the case. Mr. Colaneri refused to negotiate with Mr. Graham last fall, and called off attempts at mediation last spring.
"Michael Colaneri has never explained to me - or as far as I know anyone else - why he canceled the meeting or thought he had the power to," Mr. Graham said. "But one thing is clear: it kept alive a myth that we're dealing with a board of assessors, when we're really dealing with a single member," he continued.
"I can't subject myself to more time and effort only to once again watch Mr. Colaneri throw his monkey wrench into it," Mr. Graham added.
Selectmen appeared receptive to Mr. Graham's suggestions, and said they will consult an attorney to see whether they have the authority to settle a tax case without approval from the assessors.
Selectman Glenn Hearn said the board should move with speed, considering that Mr. Graham approached them in early October with an appeal to intervene and help settle the case.
"I've said many times I think this man deserves an answer to the letter he sent us," Mr. Hearn said. "I think we've got to figure that out quickly. We've spent three months pussy-footing around, and it hasn't gotten done."
The discussion on Wednesday included frank words and sharp exchanges on both sides. The meeting marked the first time Mr. Graham had discussed the details of his case in public.
Mr. Graham, who owns 235 acres at Mohu off Lambert's Cove Road, is challenging his assessments from fiscal years 2003 and 2004, when he paid the town more than $500,000 in property taxes. He has argued that the system town assessors use to determine land values and property taxes is fundamentally flawed.
Mr. Graham suggested on Wednesday that Mr. Colaneri does not want to settle because it would mean conceding that at the bottom of the case lies a fraud. He said that the selectmen should demand answers from the assessors about the allegedly falsified property record for a parcel of land near his property.
During the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board hearing in Boston, selectman John Early testified and provided evidence that undermined much of the assessors' rationale for changing the property record card.
"I think you need to ask the assessors: Do you think it's okay to falsify a property record to reach the results you want? Because that's why we were in trial for three months, and the town spent nearly $300,000 - to defend that position," Mr. Graham said.
"These are not reasonable things, and this is why the case took so long," he added. "I had to go up there day after day to prove the world was round, because the assessors were pretty sure it was flat."
Mr. Manter warned Mr. Graham about overstating the facts.
"I'm not saying anything that I can't prove in spades," Mr. Graham replied.
Mr. Graham also told selectmen that the town assessment problems go far beyond those associated with his own property. He said the assessment facts on numerous properties in town are wrong or skewed or changed.
"There is a system I could describe that the town supposedly uses to determine values. In fact that system is a fig leaf. It's a cover," Mr. Graham said. "There are no standards, there are no rules, there is nothing upon which they can be questioned. That's not a system; it's a dictatorship."
Mr. Graham suggested that any possible settlement must address the flaws in the overall system, and likely remove the current assessors who are in control.
"Properties are supposed to be valued by a system, but they aren't. They are valued by what the assessors think," Mr. Graham said. "And [principal assessor] Jo-Ann Resendes has made it quite clear that she is willing to bend, twist, and even destroy the system to adjust the values. So until we address that, how can we have a fair and consistent assessment system for the town?"
Town residents Cynthia Riggs and Joan Ames, who both attended the meeting on Wednesday, told the selectmen that they too have had bad experiences with the assessors. Ms. Riggs suggested that the selectmen should ask the assessors to resign.
Selectmen said yesterday that they will try to schedule a meeting with the assessors soon to ask questions that arose during the conversations with Mr. Graham and appraisers this week. They will also schedule a meeting with the assessors' attorney Ellen Hutchinson, and ask her for further itemization on her unpaid $70,000 bill.
Hoping to reduce the legal spending requests, selectmen met with appraisers this week to discuss the unpaid bills. Selectmen told both appraisers that the town is under no legal obligation to pay the bills, and in the end it will be up to the voters.
Martin Coleman Jr., owner of Coleman & Sons Appraisal Group of Waltham, defended his company's $70,000 bill. He said the large cost reflected the extreme length of the hearing, which grew to become the longest residential property tax appeal in the history of the commonwealth.
"We are not gougers. We are not overcharging," Mr. Coleman told the selectmen on Tuesday. "The duration of the case is something you should focus on. That's why these expenses are so high," he said, adding:
"I think in all honesty you kind of hit a bad break with the way the case unfolded . . . the way it was handled by both attorneys."
But the selectmen said they still felt the Coleman bill, which charges for some 16-hour days at an hourly rate of $250 during the hearing, is excessive. The board agreed to send Mr. Coleman a letter proposing he cut his bill roughly in half.
Kevin Comer, president of Vision Appraisal Technology Inc. of Northboro, met with selectmen yesterday to discuss his company's $19,000 bill. Mr. Comer offered to cut the request to $12,000, and the board accepted his offer.
Mr. Manter suggested that the Vision Appraisal representatives who attended the tax hearing were there to defend their company as much as to defend the town. The case brought the Vision Appraisal methods under intense scrutiny.
Mr. Comer did not disagree with Mr. Manter's suggestion. But he also said he does not believe that his company has done anything wrong.
Mr. Hearn questioned Mr. Comer about the assessment situation in Edgartown, where Vision Appraisal acknowledged it made mistakes and offered to revalue the entire island of Chappaquiddick this year at no cost to the town. Mr. Hearn asked whether Vision Appraisal would consider making a similar concession for West Tisbury.
"If you decided you wanted to do something like that, we'd be happy to sit down and talk about it," Mr. Comer said. "But whether you need a change in appraisal companies to support the legitimacy of values is unclear . . . Will we always be tainted by our involvement in this case? That's something the town has to decide."